Notes on the News
by Gwydion M. Williams
John Major’s best hope of staying in power is that fact that the Tory Right have no one better that Portillo to run for the top job. Fifteen years of Thatcherism have failed to produce anyone more suitable than this strange son of a Spanish Republican refugee.
[Major was actually replaced by William Hague, after Tony Blair’s triumph in 1997. He was unpopular, as were his successors Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. Only with David Cameron did they have a leader that potential Tory voters liked.
[Blair’s success in winning two more elections owed a lot to potential Tory voters not liking their own side much. And the defeats of 2010 and 2010 owed a lot to David Cameron looking competent, before he blundered into Brexit. And then in 2019, Corbyn faced another Tory leader who fooled the public into admiring him.]
The Spanish connection is less odd that it seems. From the 18th century, and particularly from Napoleon’s unwise and ultimately fatal betrayal of his Spanish allies, Spain has been a hopelessly polarised society. A place where everyone would rather die than compromise with anyone else. A land where all compromise was seen as treason and cowardice.
It took outside forces – Fascism, Communism and the state-regulated capitalism of the European Community – to finally create a society that could function in the modem world. One might not admire of Franco, but the fact is that he put Spain together into a workable whole.
Under Thatcher, Britain has increasingly ceased to be a workable whole. Scotland and Wales are very nearly lost to Toryism, and Scotland in particular is thinking seriously about going its own way. Major held back the Nationalist at the last election by sounding serious and concerned. But no coherent actions followed, and it is doubtful if he can do it again.
Thatcher’s attempts to roll back the socialist tide have only damaged the coherence and self-confidence of the nation. In the modem world, you cannot be seriously anti-socialist without also being anti-social. The Victorian middle class poisoned its own social relationships, just as wantonly and foolishly as it poisoned the air and water in the Black Country etc. And whereas people with all sorts of viewpoints laboured to recover decent clean air and water, many of them were also quite happy to see the middle class ruin itself socially. By now the process is long gone beyond any hope of reversal, as should have become obvious under Thatcher. And I think that enough people understand this to make certain that Portillo would never win an election, even if he does somehow acquire the Tory leadership.
Mind you, politics can play some strange tricks. Heath began as something very like Thatcher, and he was wise enough to switch when he saw it wasn’t working. Gladstone began his career as the rising hope of the Tory Right. And with all the deviousness of Tory plotting, one has to wonder who’s conning whom.
The Age of Bad Reasons
During the 18th century, philosophers tried to rethink society from scratch. A lot of them decided that self-interest was the most basic and comprehensible human emotion. And they tried to reinvent the whole of society – a process that culminated with the French Revolution.
Adam Smith attempted a further simplification. Self-interest is identified with money. So one can have a theory of society that ignores human needs and human personalities, concentrating instead on the ebb and flow of cash.
Adam Smith supposed that the ebb and flow of cash would naturally preserve the sort of world he was familiar with, a society dominated by enlightened aristocrats. Today’s followers of Smith have dropped all of his specific social visions. They tend to cover up the fact that he was a Deist who despised Christianity as superstitious rubbish. Also that he was a moderate supporter of George III and Lord North in their conflict with the American Revolutionaries. All of this is ignored. His bland reassurance is redirected towards a new target, the world of the narrow-minded self-righteous suburban nouveau-riche.
You’re surprised it ends in such a mess? You’re surprised that Middle England is intent on destroying itself? Don’t be. Quite apart from any greed, muddle or corruption, the central ideas simply do not make sense.
An elderly academic falling in love with a younger woman who is dying of cancer is an eminently suitable raw material to be processed into a carefully crafted appeal to a sentimental section of the public.
C. S. Lewis was an Ulster Protestant whose father was a member of the Church of Ireland. He turned for a time to a very arid and negative atheism, a rationalist creed that was not wise enough to see that not everything can be broken down into analytical categories. Lewis was persuaded back to Christianity by J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien was in fact a Roman Catholic, his mother having been a convert who was rather cruelly ostracised by her Church of England relations. But though it was Tolkien who restored Lewis’s faith, he chose to return to the Anglican tradition by joining the Church of England. And with the zeal of a convert, he immediately became a voluble and rather successful apologist for Anglican Christianity.
People make a big fuss over Lewis, treating him as a sort of latter-day prophet. I’ve always found him a very interesting writer, but also not at all likeable either as a person or a thinker. In him there was very little humanity, and not much humility either. He knew that these were Christian virtues that he was supposed to have, but they remained alien to him.
In works like The Screwtape Letters, he shows much too much enthusiasm over the impending damnation of all of the people he disapproved of. Read as fiction, it is ingenious. But if one were to seriously think that things did happen as he describes them, God allowing personal devils to tempt us into eternal damnation, how could one find this acceptable?
(I wish I could say that such fantasy-vengeance was alien to the true Christian spirit. Unfortunately it is right there in the New Testament, along with many other much more admirable emotions. Christianity is much too open to rival interpretations. I suspect that we Europeans might have been much happier if we’d all become Buddhists instead.)
Shadowlands, originally a play and now a successful Hollywood film, deals with Lewis’s unexpected late romance. But this actually involved a serious ethical problem. The woman he loved had been divorced, and her ex-husband was still alive. Even though it was created to facilitate a divorce, the Church of England has never properly accepted remarriage. By the strict rules of his religion – rules that he had been happy to try to impose on others – Lewis should not have married her.
Alternatively he could have argued for a wider view within the Christian tradition – the Orthodox Church will accept remarriage, after all. But in fact he fudged the issue, did what he wanted without regard for the rules. The play of Shadowlands rather evaded this issue. And the film, of course, ignores it completely. Christianity is a highly marketable commodity, but not if you make life tough for people.
‘Rules must be obeyed – except by me and my friends’. Lewis was indeed a very appropriate Christian prophet for modem times.
Imagine that the conflict between the USA and General Noriega had ended with a decisive victory for General Noriega. And supposing that he had then demanded a cession of US territory as compensation, a port that would facilitate free trade in all of the goods he was hoping to market. Imagine such a thing, and you will understand what Hong Kong looks like to Chinese eyes.
China in the 19th century was quite content to carry on with its traditional way of life. Neither the rulers nor the people had any Large desire for what the West could offer. And the West itself had a large desire for Chinese goods, so that free trading in ordinary goods ended up very much in China’s favour.
Opium was one commodity that could be sold in great quantities to the Chinese. Addictive drugs have a way of spreading themselves into new markets. And contrary to what some people say, it was already well known that opium was dangerous. It was just that Western governments under middle class influence were gripped by extreme laisse faire doctrines and were reluctant to pass laws against bad habits or even lethal narcotics. Whereas China was still governed by traditional Confucian notions of benevolence and responsibility, and tried to stamp out illegal opium smuggling on its own sovereign territory.
The Opium Wars were just what the name implies – wars to prevent a sovereign government carrying out a wise and far-sighted policy to preserve its social values and the health of its own people. But it was Britain that had the military power, won the war and grabbed Hong Kong as a gateway into China.
History has a way of taking revenge on the smugly self-righteous. The Victorian middle classes unleashed forces that destroyed their own social values along with everyone else’s. And the attempts by the tail-end of that class to give Hong Kong a democratic tradition that it never had before are unlikely to end well.
Bosnia – Mission Unethical
Serbs are White Christian Europeans. British and American foreign policy is run by loud-mouthed hypocrites who love grand moral postures, but who also know quite well what public opinion back home will actually put up with. Serbs will not be bombed with the sort of seriousness and viciousness that might actually make a difference.
[I was of course wrong about this. But it took a lot more effort to get to that point.]
The actual bombing that took place was based on pure legal jiggery-pokery. And the Russians had every right to be furious about it. The UN had given generalised permission for bombing to defend UN personnel. So SAS men were deliberately sent into Gorazde, and then directed the bombing that was nominally for their protection. The sort of scheme you might get on that old TV series Mission Impossible.
But unlike TV villains, the Serbs fight back. A handful of “special forces’’ are no match for hundreds of trained fighters on their own home ground. A British plane was shot down, and one of the SAS was “accidentally” killed near the front line, and the whole scheme collapsed very rapidly.
If moral principles were to be taken seriously, one would have to say that the Bosnian Serbs were originally hard done by. Despite being the largest of Bosnia’s interwoven minorities, they were stripped of their constitutional rights by a Muslim – Croat alliance. Taken out of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia and into a sovereign mini-state run by their traditional foes. Foes who had allied with the Nazis to massacre Serbs in World War Two.
Of course the Serbs have also done wrong on a lot of occasions – beginning with the suppression of the autonomy of the Albanians of Kosovo. The ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Kosovo is expected to happen as soon as the war in Bosnia finishes, and no one even pretends that they are going to do anything about it.
In Gorazde, it does seem that the Serbs didn’t start it
“What seems to have stirred the [Bosnian Serb Army] into action at Gorazde is the attempt by Moslem groups there to link up with their brethren in Zepa and Srebrenenica.”
Thus writes Paul Beaver in the Daily Mirror of April 19th, giving facts that are treated as non-facts elsewhere in that same paper.
“A little aggressive patrolling prompted a knee-jerk reaction from the Serbs.
“Whether it was the Moslem’s intentions to provoke a response doesn’t really matter … but they certainly got one.
“The Serbs nearly played directly into their hands and allowed the Moslem government, through NATO air strikes, to internationalise the dispute.”
Except that when it comes to the crunch, British and American public opinion would not be willing to see White Christian Europeans massacred for the benefit of Muslims. Were it to be attempted, even the Daily Mirror would doubtless print heart-rending pictures of Serbian bombing victims and blame the government for following the logic of the Mirror’s own propaganda. Serbs are not a people that can be casually massacred the way the Iraqis were. No one dare say this openly. But everyone except perhaps the Bosnian Muslim government knows perfectly well that it is so.
This article appeared in May 1994, in Issue 41 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/ and https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/m-articles-by-topic/.